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Darra Goldstein on Culinary Diplomacy and Eurasian Fermentation Traditions 

By Natasha Wood, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

Food scholar Darra Goldstein knows that when you talk to Americans about preserving food, the first thing that comes to mind is pickles. She is also aware that there is something inherently appealing about the sour taste that comes from fermented and preserved food more generally. “In the Slavic world… peasants didn’t know about probiotics by name,” she said. “But they knew what they liked, and they knew what made them feel healthy.” 

Goldstein explores the value of culinary diplomacy and the potential that food provides to bridge cultural divides and misunderstandings. Goldstein is the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, Emerita at Williams College. On October 17, 2023, she spoke to the Culinary Diplomacy Club and the Eurasia Club at The Fletcher School about her work. Guests at the event sampled Moldovan food and dishes fermented in Ukrainian, Georgian, Russian, and Romanian styles.

Goldstein’s passion for fermentation is as obvious as the spice in the adzhika, a Georgian pepper relish, that was on offer. “If there is a trinity in Russia, besides the religious one, it would be vodka, of course… black bread, and pickles,” she said. “And all three of those are the product of fermentation.” The tradition of fermentation is, of course, fundamentally engrained in Slavic cuisine. It manifests in dishes such as shchi, the Russian national soup made with sauerkraut; rassolnik, made with fermented brine from pickles; okroshka, a summer soup served cold with kvas, and many others. 

More than passion, Goldstein reminded attendees that food has historically played a critical role in the construction of national identity. In France, Marie-Antoine Carême codified French cuisine in the early 19th century and later served as head chef to Tsar Alexander I. In Italy, Pellegrino Artusi published “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” shortly after the Italian unification of 1861—his recipes created a unified Italian cuisine. In 2004, Claus Meyer and René Redzepi published the “Nordic Kitchen Manifesto” shortly after opening the restaurant Noma, thereby starting a twenty-year craze over Nordic cuisine.

Finally, Goldstein’s talk reiterated the importance of food as a tool of diplomacy. Some Arabic traditions dictate that once you’ve broken bread with someone, they can no longer be your enemy. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian borscht was placed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. Goldstein stressed that this decision is a reminder of the central role food plays in unifying communities and the threat the war presents for much of Ukrainian tradition and culture. 

Despite the devastation of the war, Goldstein is optimistic. “When you think about the English word ‘companion’… what is the root?” Goldstein asked. “Co—that’s with, and pane—is bread. So, whoever you break bread with becomes your companion.” In an ever-complicated world mired in religious, political, and ethnic conflict, perhaps breaking bread together remains a simple yet indispensable diplomatic tool.

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